Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Of Generals and Particulars

There are quite a few aspects to Christianity that are ‘general.’ Christianity carries with it moral commands and exhortations, the most culturally familiar one being the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” which was said by Jesus himself. Many people connect with Christianity in this general sense would agree that the moral imperatives are good and match up well with what other religions teach about being good people. Will Smith recently stated that Scientology and the Bible teach basically the same things, and he quoted the Golden Rule as his prime example. In additional general terms Christianity encompasses ideas about good versus evil, transformation of society, and what is often referred to as ethical monotheism, all of which many people identify with in a positive way.
However, Christianity also carries with it particularities which sharply define the generalities given above. This is the part of Christianity which many people do not like. If all that the Bible and 2000 years of Church history teaches is “be good to people”, then anyone that came along and also taught “be good to people” would be teaching the same thing, and Will Smith would then be right. But Christianity has some particulars which define it distinctly, and to identify or define the Christian faith only by its generalities is simply inaccurate and disingenuous (not to mention blatantly reductionist).
What are some of these particulars? Two immediately spring to mind. The first is the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the second is the concept of original sin. These two particulars are radically distinct in the world of religious and moral concepts. No other religion pronounces its founder as divine in such a manner as Jesus Christ is portrayed in the New Testament. While Mohammed is viewed as a prophet by Muslims, he is not viewed as divine. While Buddha is highly Enlightened and revered in such a fashion as to be god-like, he is not viewed like Jesus as “the image of the Invisible God,” “by whom all things were created” and in whom “all the fullness of God is pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15,19). Theologically speaking, this is called a high Christology (i.e. a high theology of Christ)
Now this particular feature of Christianity, that is, the divinity of Christ Jesus, on its own does not create much of a stir. What I mean is this: many people think it’s a great idea for God to come to earth as a human and teach us all the right things. And why not, we’re certainly worthy of such attention, after all we are created in his image. But this is where the second particular cuts to the quick. If humans do in fact have original sin, that is, a sinful nature that all people are inherently born with – something both Old and New Testaments clearly teach – then it follows that something must be done about original sin. Even if God came to earth as a human in Jesus Christ, if all he did was teach a great moral philosophy, that does not change our inherent situation. Ours is a situation of a tragic inability to produce goodness on any kind of lasting or consistent way – if we could the world would be perfect. Deep down we all know this inability is real, despite our best efforts to deny it. No other religion has such a view of human nature. Theologically speaking, this is called a low anthropology (i.e. a low theology of human nature).
This low anthropology, the idea of original sin, indicates that just telling a person to “be good” does not guarantee they will. Maybe for like a day, or ten minutes, but not every moment for their whole life. And as many of you may already know, for all the good we may do, there is inevitably some ‘bad’ in our life that seems to offset the good. Furthermore, the most ‘heavy’ moral command given by Jesus is, “Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) – a pretty tall order for even the staunchest of the morally upright. So tall that most either ignore such a rigorous command or water it down by alluding to Jesus’ penchant for hyperbole. While Jesus did use hyperbole on occasion (and even sarcasm, wit, and many other means of communication), the Sermon on the Mount is hardly the setting for such hyperbole. No, Jesus meant what he said and we are left to deal with it.
How we deal with it is of great importance. As I stated above, Christianity carries much that is general, especially moral imperatives, which can be quite appealing. However, dealing with this question of “being perfect” requires us to look not at Christian generals, but to its particulars. If we are unable to live up to the moral commands of God as found in the Bible, because of a low anthropology, then we must have a savior. Not just any nice teacher will do either. In truth, only God himself can do something for us and to us. We are helpless. This is what the Bible teaches. This is the view of Jesus Christ himself, who said, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). This is the Christianity of St. Paul, who writes in Romans 5:8, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is the Christianity of the Apostles, like St. John, who wrote, it is “not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [i.e. the atoning sacrifice] for our sins (1 John 4:10).
These passages tell us of the atonement – the death of Jesus on the Cross where he took our sins upon himself, making atonement for them before God. This is the ultimate particular of Christianity. In the atonement the other two particulars of a low anthropology and a high Christology meet. Helpless people are rescued by their divine Lord, and he saves them not with platitudes or advice, but with his very blood. These three particulars are what make Christianity distinctly Christian. They do this because they make Jesus Christ utterly essential to Christianity. Much of what passes for “Christianity” today is essentially Christianity without Christ – knowing God apart from the Son.
What I mean is this: it seems to me that a great deal of effort is put into being “spiritual” these days, but this is an extremely general term to which generalities of all kinds of religions are applied. I practice a type of prayer style, I try to be a good person like Jesus or Buddha teaches, I am interested in studying religious ideas, and so on – therefore I am spiritual. What concerns me is that this is seen as sufficient for many Christians, so that what they get is a Christianity with no Jesus Christ, apart from some general ideas about him and his ‘teachings’. Jesus himself said that in order to know God you must know the Son (John 1:18; 14:7). There seems to me to be quite a strong and appealing movement to strive to know ‘God’ by bypassing the Son. Now, one may do this, but in all integrity they can’t call it Christianity. This is the offensive particularity of Christian revelation – if you want to know God, experience God, follow God, you must go through the Son of God, who is Jesus Christ.
What is in desperate need for Christians of all walks, and churches across the globe (but especially in North America and the West) is a reclamation of the particulars of the Faith, rather than a vague celebration of its generalities. Not in a shrill manner of vigorous ‘bible thumping’, but a firm stand on what is true about our Faith (1 Corinthians 15:58). The heart of reclaiming the particulars of Christianity are the three that I have mentioned above: the divinity of Jesus Christ, the lowly estate of humans, and the power of Christ’s death on the Cross (and subsequent bodily resurrection) as remedy for humans. Over the next few months we shall take a deeper look at these particulars, in terms of how they were explained by a lovely little statement developed in the sixteenth century that goes like this: salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone, so that God alone gets the glory – or to put it in Latin: sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Big Bend

My wife and I just returned from a four day camping/hiking trip to Big Bend National Park. It's one of the most remote NP's in the country, but it is absolutely breathtaking.
The concentration of diverse and mind-blowing geological features is truly remarkable. One of the moments that stands out for me (on a trip that was pretty much non-stop "oh wow, look over there!") was when we first looked across the valley from the Chisos Mountains to the ridge through which Santa Elena Canyon is cut by the Rio Grande [pictured above]. 1500 foot cliffs in a straight line rise up out of nowhere and run for miles north and south and in the middle is a huge gouge that looks, from a distance, like part of the cliffs have just caved in (That's the canyon). Think Argonath but without the statues. Anyway, one of my first reactions to such a vista was that it was so amazing that it looked fake. Have you ever looked at something in nature so cool that the only way you can process it is by categorizing it as "fake". Perhaps another way of putting it is surreal. Maybe you felt this way the first time you ever saw the Grand Canyon in person, at some point you almost have to ask yourself, "wow, is this really real?"

In his book "The Great Divorce", CS Lewis writes a fictional account of a man who journies from hell up to heaven in a bus. At one point he asks one of the heavenly dwellers if he can take a piece of fruit back with him. The answer he gets is no, but because "all of hell could not contain that apple, because the apple is real." In TGD, Lewis talks of heaven as that which is really and truly real, the ultimate reality, and hell is a grey place of fake-ness and unreality (although everyone there seems to think its real enough).
If I am unable to process the grandeur and majesty of earthly "glory", found, say in a beautiful canyon, because it is so real that I perceive it to be fake, how much more will I be unable to process the glory of God and heaven? Fake things are only shown to be what they are in the face of real things. If Lewis is right, and God is as real as it gets, then I am a fake, shown for what I am even in something as simple as a beautiful vista. And who would do anything for a fake? Maybe someone would do something nice for a good person, but not a fake. But God demonstrates his love for us in this, that while we were still fakers, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

You know, i really did enjoy and find beauty in the vista, certainly on some leve for its own sake. But in revealing to me the invisible qualities of God (Rom 1:18) and my own shortcomings, I am now ever more grateful for His mercy and grace.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Potter's Hand

It’s been two whole months since the Harry Potter saga came to a dramatic close, and since I ended my last post with a reference to a meaningful quote from the Potter series, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts, post-Hallows.

I just read that the Harry Potter movies have surpassed James Bond as the highest grossing movie franchise in history (when not adjusted for inflation). I continue to be amazed at the staggering numbers that Mr. Potter has wracked up. For example, Book 6 sold more copies in its first 24 hours than The DaVinci Code sold in a year (and you remember what a big deal that book was when it hit the stands).

All number crunching aside, what makes Harry Potter so profound for me is that Book 7 ratified the underlying theme for the whole series – that it is ultimately a reflection on death. Underneath the lovable characters and memorable moments and a most engaging writing style, is a very deep and thought-provoking mediation on life and death.

From the opening chapter of Book 1, “The Boy Who Lived”, the whole Potterverse is moved and shaken by one man’s pathological fear of death and his willingness to go to any means to avoid it (that would be Voldemort), and one boy’s life shattered by death and healed by love (that would be Harry).

At the heart of the life-death dynamic is the power of love. Not namby-pamby, fairy tale or even classic romantic love, but sacrificial love. This kind of love is what Harry learns about and acts upon, and of what Voldemort has no knowledge whatsoever. Sacrificial love is the agent which defeats death, and while this truth comes up throughout the series, Book 7 abolishes any doubt to Rowling’s intentions otherwise.

HP is hardly the first fiction to wrestle with the subject of death, or even to name sacrificial love as the counter to death, but what made the whole series ring true was the way death was addressed in Book 7. Prior to the release of Deathly Hallows, one literary critic I read (whose name and article reference I’ve tried to find but so far have been unable) notes that what essentially dies in the HP books is God. The world of Potter, he observers, is utterly devoid of faith, prayer, or even mention of church or God. While this is actually an accurate observation, the deeper issue implied is not so much that ‘God’ dies in HP, but rather that the Christian God dies. And, really, up to the close of Book 6, there would be little to refute this position.

Then Deathly Hallows arrived. Interestingly, I had read the aforementioned (and so far elusive) article just prior to July 21st, and so this ‘absence of God’ was very much on my mind as I began reading Book 7. That is also why I was struck early on when, after George Weasley is seriously injured (he loses an ear) Mrs. Weasley tells Harry that George is going to be alright, and Harry says, “Thank God” (pg 74), which might be the first time “God” is specifically mentioned in the whole series. That is fairly innocuous, but as the book goes on, when Harry and Hermione go to Godric’s Hollow and visit the graveyard, two quotes from Scripture are found on gravestones. One quote on Kendra Dumbledore’s grave is from Jesus himself, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21). The other on James & Lily Potter’s grave is from 1 Corinthians 15:26, “And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” 1 Corinthians 15 is one of the most profound passages on the bodily resurrection in all of Scripture.

Perhaps this may be construed as mining for nuggets of “Jesus under every rock,” perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t think I am. Granted, the verses of Scripture are never explicitly identified as such in the text, but Rowling is subtly telling us that the love which defeats death is in fact love in the Christian sense – that is “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay his life down for his friends” (John 15:13). After all, she very well could have used other verses, or none at all.

This type of love empties the self and pours out for the sake of the other, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). This concept of love (agape in the New Testament) is distinctly Christian. Not that Rowling’s characters are Christian, nor are the stories themselves “Christian”, but the themes and concepts of love and life and death and the way she resolves them are very much Christian. If this is so, was it intended, or is this all just a radical coincidence? I don’t think so.

While Harry is hardly a Christ-figure, nor is he intended to be, the sacrificial love he demonstrates is. Does this make HP a Christian series (much to the dismay of the angry fundamentalists who condemned it from very early on)? No. HP is “Christian” as much as Lord of the Rings is “Christian,” in that, while the stories and characters themselves are non-Christian, the themes and concepts that they deal with are (for example Gandalf’s resurrection as Gandalf the White, and Aragorn being the true returning King, whose hands are healing hands).

And so, the greatest books of this present day and age (despite what Harold Bloom and company may think, they are) end with a resoundingly subtle Gospel message. Not just that love defeats death, but it is love that drives one to take the place of anther in death which is at the heart of the HP stories. From the fateful substitution of Lily, Harry’s mother, to Harry’s own journey to the forest (Harry’s Gethsemane) to give his life that others may live, these stories convey a Christian understanding of sacrificial love. And note, it is not “I love these people so much that I will die,” but rather, “I love these people so much that I will die in their place so they might live.” There’s a big difference between the two. Changing gears to a more theological bent, the former basically attributes to the Cross a moral example atonement, whereas the latter ascribes the classic understanding of substitutionary atonement – that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that is, in our place for the just judgment against our evil hearts and deeds.

I look forward to re-re-reading the whole series again sometime in the near future, after I have finished my latest enterprise of taking on, once again, the Lord of the Rings.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Another 2 Worlds

Since my last posting regarding "between 2 worlds", I came across an article in TIME magazine called "Second Life's Real World Problems" - see the article for yourself: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1651500,00.html
and i thought it would be a fitting sequence to write about Second Life, having just written about living between two worlds, even if the two subjects are completely different.
If you don't know Second Life, it is an online virutal world where people create computer characters (called avatars) who can open businesses, travel the "world", drink, party, have sex, and shop for shoes in this enormous, highly interactive virtual world. Admittedly, having never personally signed up for it, I've been following articles on Second Life for a while now, and finally have decided to reflect on it. What promted such reflection was this TIME article. A major development recently has been that real businesses in the real world are opening virtual businesses in Second Life and selling virtual products (like Nike shoes for your avatar) but for real money. Apparently its becoming quite a big deal and lots of real money is being exchagned, a veritable virtual economy.
When i first read about Second Life, my first inclination was not suprise, but rather, 'well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.' And of course shortly thereafter stories appeared about folks who spend more time on Second Life than they do at their jobs in real life, which they probably have consequently lost. Initially my concern was, and to some extent still is, the Matrix factor. In all seriousness, we are only one step away from plugging our brains in to interface with this technology, rather than use our hands. And every sci-fi movie ever made on the subject seems to think that jacking in is a bad idea. Nonetheless, my point is not to throw rocks at Second Life, but rather to see it and the many other products, novelties, and technologies out there like it, in terms of what is revealed about human nature in them.
People are hard wired for relationships. We seek them out no matter what. 'Any relationship is better than no relationship' is the mentality, conscious or subconsious, that often leads to co-dependent abusive situations. In "Cast Away", tom hank's character forms a relationship with a volleyball while trapped on his deserted island. When relationships in the real world become to difficult or painful or just not there, we still seek them out online. What struck me in the above article, is that people are now getting significantly malcontent online.
This is quoted from the article: "some devotees are so upset by increasing commercialization that a group called the Second Life Liberation Army last year gunned down virtual shoppers at American Apparel. So-called griefing, or on-site harassment, is on the rise. Says Gartner research chief Steve Prentice: "Second Life is moving into a phase of disillusionment." Wow, even VR can't escape it.Now we have avatar shooting rampages happening - the world, it seems, is an ugly place, and you can't hide from that fact, even in a virtual world.
So where does all this lead me? Being a bit of a Potter-phile, I re-read the whole series before Deathly Hallows was released, and there is a remarkable line by Dumbledore in Book1. He says to Harry, who has been spending a lot of time looking into a magical mirror (which has been showing him images of his long dead parents), that the mirror gives us neither knowledge nor truth, and that "It does not do to dwell on dreams, and forget to live in the real world." Perhaps an ironic truth to be told by a wizard in a world famous fantasy novel series, but the point is taken. There is no substitute for real relationships, however appealing and fun, and even deeply connective virtual ones may be. Even if this is all true, it is still only diagnostic. How do people deal with the ugliness of the world and the problems of relating to other people?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Between 2 Worlds

I am a man who is apparently living in two worlds, like a tree that lives its life in a realm of solid soil and fluid air. A tree’s roots are in a solid realm, where nutrients and moisture are absorbed for life. At the same time a whole other part of the tree lives in a realm of fluids – sunlight and air full of carbon dioxide is taken in and converted to oxygen and sugar for sustaining life. One thing stuck in two realms, both equally necessary to exist.
As I begin my life as an ordained minister in the Anglican Church, I have become increasingly aware of the distinct difference of realms in which my life and ministry are exercised. I spend a lot of time dwelling on thoughts and writings of men long dead for many centuries. I spend at least one day a week in robes harkening back to the sixteenth century. My mind is subject to a Book thousands of years old, and I serve in a tradition of liturgy hundreds of years old. The roots of my ministry are in a soil ancient and deep.
And yet I engage people in a world of electronic flickering madness, a fluid place where communication is done in a manner and at a rate so completely alien to the people and traditions of the soil of my roots as to be absurd. A self-professed sci-fi nerd, movie lines and concepts frequently appear in my sermons. I email, play video games with high schoolers, preach to Gen Xers, watch movies, and talk on a cell phone. This essay is being written on a 12 inch laptop with 37 gigabytes of memory (did Cranmer even have sweep of a giga-anything?). For good or ill, the air of techno-culture is as much a part of me as the soil of Reformed Cranmerian Anglicanism and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
So what’s the point? A tree is not a tree without its roots; it will be blown away and lack the nutrients it needs. And yet that very breeze is also life sustaining to the tree. I am rooted in the past and stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me. Without the sound teaching of Stott, Forde, and Allison, Cranmer and Luther before them, and St. Paul before them, I would wither and be blown away by slightest breeze of culture. However, while I am rooted in the past, I in fact do not live in the past, I live today and must be able to minister in today. As Garth once said to Wayne, “Live in the now!” A minister of the Gospel needs to understand the culture in which they are living, and trust in the power of the Holy Spirit that exposure to that culture will not destroy them, because righteousness comes not from culture but Christ, and from that the freedom to engage culture without fear of being tainted – in fact one will often find the Holy Spirit at work in parts of culture before they even get there. Nevertheless, there is a danger here, and there are some who would see the present culture as sufficient for sustaining a ministry, and on the other hand there are those who see the past as solely definitive. One could say the former is a more liberal view and the latter a more conservative position.
So, does good ministry spring only from roots or only from the wind of culture? Or is it both? I have heard it said that a good preacher of the Gospel has a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other – preaching that old, old story of “Jesus Christ died for sinners” to a new and present audience. Gospel ministry requires that the preacher knows his audience – as Proverbs admonishes, “Know well the condition of your flocks” (27:23). Thus, the “newspaper” aspect of my ministry in a very tangible sense it is vital to communicating the Gospel. However, it is important to know that the Gospel comes to us from the past – the message of Jesus Christ comes to us today through the witness of apostles, prophets, and martyrs, preserved and declared in Scripture, and if you don’t or are unable to tap into this, then you will ultimately have nothing to preach. Nonetheless, what good is it to pass on the Words of Life to an audience that has absolutely no idea what you are talking about? Therefore, good ministry, like a healthy tree, springs from both the roots of the past and the wind of the present, but I must bow to the priority of the roots, particularly the root of Scripture (a posture which is, after all, very Anglican!).
Perhaps this all may sound obvious to some and edgy to others, but it seems that today’s Anglican, by necessity of their heritage, needs to be ever so keenly reminded of the stiff and ever present wind of culture, and the vitality of a strong root system to make such a wind an asset and not an enemy. And perhaps this is the gist of what I am trying to get at. The wind of change blows (Scorpions), and much of what stands as Anglicanism today has chopped off its roots – for example, relegating such things as the Articles and Homilies to mere ‘historical documents’– and so finds itself caught up in the breeze of culture. It remembers its roots, but in fact no longer has them, and relies solely on its fluid environment for sustenance, no longer having access to solid nutrients. Such a tree can in fact live for quite some time, but ultimately it will blow away and die. Furthermore, such a tree will end up where the wind of culture blows it – a healthy tree remains firmly rooted, even in the strongest of winds. While some may not see culture as a ‘bad’ thing, the fact of the matter is that a culture is only as pure as the sinners of which it is composed.
I close by pointing out that my Christianity, my faith in Jesus Christ, will not wither and die, for He is the author and finisher of my faith. I am a Christian, a disciple and believer in the Lord Jesus by necessity of grace. I am an Anglican by preference and conviction, and it is within this chosen sphere that my ministry manifests. It is upon this Anglican life which I show concern, and it is this Anglican life which leads me to look at my calling as a man who lives not just in one world, but between two worlds.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Keeping up...

Well, It is done. I have officially entered the blogosphere, and am hopeful the fumes won't be too bad. Perhaps the title above needs a little introduction. These words were spoken by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, upon his execution at the stake in 1556, when he held his hand in the flames that lept up at him. Previously he had recanted his Reformed Protestant convictions and had even signed a confession before the tender ministrations of Roman inquisitors. Overcome by his lack of courage, he changed his mind, told the powers that be to get stuffed, and they promptly had him executed. As he began to burn, he held his right hand, that hand with which he had signed his recantations, into the flames so that it would be the first part of him to go, and as it burned he cried, "This hand hath offended." Powerful words for a man who died for powerful convictions of a Reformed faith and a reformed Church in England. Powerful words spoken during the tumultuous age of the birth of Anglicanism. It is my intention to use this site to examine aspects of theology, church history, and politics from a protestant Anglican view, as well as my observations, thoughts, etc. on the world and culture around us. That's all.